Making a museum from scratch: Part Four

What does the mission of a radically transparent museum look like?

In Part Three of this series, I proposed that our museum be radically transparent, that we organize it around the notion that everything should be transparent unless it needs to be otherwise.  I also proposed that it invert the current pyramid of transparency of museum practice (exhibits & curation=most transparent/collections & conservation =least transparent). Both ideas I find very interesting and a little daunting and many of you seemed to agree.

In this post, I’d like to get a little more deeply into the ideas and concerns people raised about transparency and mission, and propose some ideas that will make up the mission of our imaginary museum, so we can start to work out how it might be put together.

Transparency is a way to accrue public value 

Suse Cairns provided a great quote from Megan Cook’s Delivering Public Value Through Transparency, making clear that transparency is a means to an end.

“By taking a public value perspective, the notion of pursuing transparency is assessed by identifying its value (e.g. social, political, strategic, financial, ideological, etc). The end goal is to accrue public value and transparency is the means to achieve it. That is, transparency is not an end society pursues for its own sake.”

Transparency is a way to demonstrate authenticity

Rob Stein very ably got to the root of why transparency can be a good thing, namely the desire to make our ideals and mission as obvious as possible to our audiences. He said,

“In my mind, transparency is a communications tool that is based on an organization’s commitment and desire for authenticity. That desire for authenticity demands an open disclosure of good, bad, and otherwise unknown facts about how museums work. Transparency then, is a reflection of the integrity and proficiency possessed by the museum at any moment in time.”

Let’s take a moment and unpack what’s inside this desire to be authentic. Authenticity – the state of being exactly who you say you are – is also one level of abstraction from the core of the matter. The reason for a museum to value authenticity is because what a museum does is valuable and important.  The ideals of the institution should make clear its value proposition, and therefore we want to build it in such a way that it’s processes and products are visible and comprehensible to our audiences, so that they too can see how we are delivering on our ideals and being exactly who we say we are; in other wordsauthentic.

Transparency is a way to generate social capital

This puts a heavy burden on the institution. To be radically transparent (or radically authentic, as Rob calls it) is to be willing to have most every decision weighed by our audience against our mission. Who we hire, what we exhibit, what we publish and how – all become evidence anyone can use for or against us.

So why do it? The benefit to our museum is that it helps establish our presence in the reputation economy by generating social capital. As Rob pointed out, “social capital has a direct impact on the viability and financial health of our organizations. Rather than being driven only by supply and demand, social capital is accrued by building honest relationships with a community.”  Or communities, both physical and virtual. Social capital, according to The Saguaro Seminar, refers to the collective value of all “social networks” [who people know] and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other [“norms of reciprocity”]. As institutions that depend on the philanthropy of others for their very survival, accruing social capital is a necessary first step towards viability.

Your mission, should you choose to accept

All of this goes to my initial question, “So what does a mission statement for a 21st century museum look like that takes these ideas to heart and expresses them in a radically transparent way to the staff who carry it out, and to the audiences whom the museum serves?”

Assuming, we want to seek AAM accreditation, our museum’s mission needs to embody the following:

  • The museum asserts its public service role and places education at the center of that role.
    (We exist to provide some public benefit)
  • The museum is committed to public accountability and is transparent in its mission and its operations.
    (We operate in a way that makes it easy to see how we’re fulfilling our mission. There’s that “transparent” word again!) 
  • The museum has a clear understanding of its mission and communicates why it exists and who benefits as a result of its efforts.
    (We live our mission.)
  • All aspects of the museum’s operations are integrated and focused on meeting its mission.
    (We are mission-focused.)
  • The museum’s governing authority and staff think and act strategically to acquire, develop, and allocate resources to advance the mission of the museum.
    (We are in it for the long haul.)

So, with your indulgence, I want to try to say things that would be in our imaginary museum’s mission, without getting into the chore of writing it. I think writing a generic archaeology museum’s mission is not going to be a useful exercise, and there’s a lot of ground I still want to cover.  For the sake of argument, let’s say that our museum’s mission includes (in soaring prose, of course) the following:

  • To preserve, conserve, and display the information recovered from the site (the collection).
  • To interpret the importance of site and time period in the context of world history and the present.
  • To enable scholarship, learning, and new discovery about the topic and period by making use of the collection
  • To be an asset to the community through our programs and practice (measurable because of our openness + transparency)

Back in Part One, I proposed some audiences as a way to understand how we might organize our work.  Particularly around the mission, being clear about our audiences is critical. I propose that our museum has the following three audiences:

1) The global audience
The interested layperson looking for historical/archaeological information;
Online audience, interested in facts and images about topics, and ability to ask questions of staff

The student looking for  looking for historical/archaeological information;
Online audience, interested in facts and images about topics, and ability to ask questions of staff

2) The local audience
The tourist visiting the area;
Onsite and online audience, interested in topic, how it applies to local area. Online audience wants visit-planning info and ability to buy tickets.

The local;
Onsite and online audience, interested in topic, how it applies to them. Online audience wants visit-planning info, especially events at museum, and ability to buy tickets.

3) The professional audience
The archaeologist looking for archaeological information;
Primarily an online audience, looking for information (metadata) as much as object info. Also PDFs of original docs/images. More valuable for research than interpretive texts. Also wants ability to ask questions of staff

The museum professional looking for museum-related information;
Primarily an online audience, looking for object/subject information, as well as process information. Also wants ability to ask questions of staff

It is instructive to note that all of our audiences are online, and only some of them are onsite. How will our museum meet the needs of these audiences? In the next post, I’d like to switch gears a bit and move into planning. If we were getting a museum off the ground, what would we do in the 2-3 years between starting work and opening a physical building?

I look forward to your thoughts.


Inspirational Readings

Maria Popova posted a lovely piece on the interplay of theory and practice.  “Practice is integrating theory into our systems and living from that place.”

Thought Den posted a good summary of the MuseumNext conference in Barcelona, and I am amazed at the relevance of what went on there with what we’ve been talking about here. Take a peek at “MuseumNext condensed : bright minds in Barca”

“Duende, a story about digital strategy” is a great short post from Jasper Visser on digital strategy.  I especially like the digital engagement framework he and Jim Richardson devised. Expect to see it again.

Beth Harris and Steven Zucker wrote an editorial for the (UK) Museums Association called  “Re-imagining museums: Why the Google Art Project is important for museums.” that hit precisely the same territory we’ve been covering.

In the Harvard Business Review, Bansi Nagji and Geoff Tuff proposed “A Simple Tool You Need to Manage Innovation” that looks at strategic innovation, which I think is a great way of thinking about the future in the initial planning of our museum, and ensuring that we don’t just write a slightly less-archaic prescription that our successors will chafe against.

David Roth wrote a piece for Forbes that requires little introduction, “Creating a Great Culture — Your Company’s Foundational DNA” 

Which led lastly to this piece from Harvard Business Review, “How to be happier at work.” 


  1. I have been thinking a lot about transparency lately, and want to just add a few things to the conversation.

    The first is that I think internal transparency is equally as important as external transparency. It’s great if a museum has made a commitment to share its processes with the public, but what if the visitor services staff has never even *met* half the curators? What if the development staff has never really sat down with the education department and worked together to target donations and grants? I have worked at institutions where department heads have never seen their department budgets. I find it incredibly depressing how many places play sleight of hand games internally rather than simply standing up and owning their work and their mistakes.

    The second is why we aren’t more transparent already. I think this can be summed up as fear. I think it comes from a couple of places:
    – What if we aren’t doing a good enough job?
    – What if someone notices we did something wrong?
    – What if the public isn’t actually all that interested/impressed with what we do?
    – What if all of a sudden they think they can do more/better than we do?
    – What if what we do isn’t all that valuable or important after all?

    It’s an incredibly vulnerable place to be in. I’ve been testing myself and thinking of the things I could make transparent about my job for the public and sometimes it makes me squirm – and I would consider myself fairly confident in both my own abilities and my communication skills!

    Lastly, I like your list of things to include in a mission statement. I would argue that in terms of their importance and priority, though, they should be precisely reversed from the order in which you’ve put them. The more I think about “preserve, collect, & display” in dichotomy with “create community” the more I think that I would aim for the latter instead of the former almost every time.

    Whew, sorry, that was long!


    1. Excellent comments, Amanda! And dead on! I can come up with my own version of every one of your examples of internal opacity, as well as your fears about the potential risks of transparency. If we starting from scratch, how might we build an organizational structure and culture that supports and rewards transparency to mitigate the real vulnerability you mention?

      I didn’t rank order the items in the mission statement, but maybe I should’ve. I’m interested that you perceive a dichotomy between collection and community building. Do they need to be that way, or is your response based on the way things are? I’d like to use the collection as a tool to build community. Is it possible?


      1. Sorry I didn’t get back to this!
        I believe that an organization culture that starts from scratch would do a few things, in no particular order:
        – Hire the right people and make it clear during the interview process what institutional culture the museum strives for; some people are just never going to be comfortable with that level of radical transparency on their own work!
        – Encourage a genuinely collegial atmosphere that includes non-work bonds and friendliness beyond strict professional codes. I may feel not feel a professional obligation to share all the details of a current project with a curator until the project timeline says I should, but if I have a personal relationship – encouraged by my institution – I am going to come to him earlier and more often and achieve both transparency and teamwork.
        – Rigorous performance evaluations truly focused on excellence and the mission of the institution rather than just “getting by,” followed by appropriate compensation. I have on more than one occasion encountered the “but we work in nonprofits, we don’t get paid well, we should get some slack” attitude and it drives me nuts. Similarly, the kind of competent, driven person who will be comfortable sharing their mistakes with their colleagues is one who will encourage and benefit from frequent feedback.
        – Actual transparency! Throw open the working files to *anyone* – use Google Docs to write your exhibit text and let everyone see it, even if only a few people edit it. Keep your daily admission totals on a public counter. Brief your staff on budgets, adjustments, and the decisions made for programs. (Old Sturbridge Village, where I did my graduate internship last summer/fall, has a public intranet landing page that displays every statistic imaginable, accessible to everyone. I loved that thing!)


        1. All these comments have been excellent food for thought for Part Five and beyond. Being to tell people what kind of place they’re being hired to work in is so important, especially for a new institution. And I’m obviously in agreement about transparency needing to be an internal as well as external practice. In fact, I think it could only work if it were applied in both directions because it will be so hard. Unless you’re living it, it would be too easy to slide into more traditional, opaque practices.


      2. And to answer your second question – in a way, I do see a dichotomy, yes. Both very practically in terms of resources (if we spend money acquiring, that’s less money for school group tours) and more theoretically. Is preserve the opposite of share? When you’re talking about an historic object, it really can be. Letting everyone see the Constitution, or the Star-Spangled Banner, materially contributes to their degradation.

        Objects, real actual objects, have power, and sometimes that power can only be communicated through physical presence. (I think some people would argue that it can *only* be effectively shared through physicality.) Rainey Tisdale, who teaches at Tufts, has been raising the question lately of letting visitors touch historic objects – why? when? how? under what circumstances? will it genuinely benefit visitors? is it worth it? should we create tiers of accessibility – anyone can handle that fifth instance of the same broken spinning wheel, but no one gets to try on George Washington’s hat?

        There’s also the current argument that collect/exhibit excludes community, and I think no one has yet settled the question (at least to my satisfaction) over whether the benefit is to selectively curate a handful of objects and provide context (traditional model) thus providing coherence in a very busy modern world, or whether it’s more beneficial to open wide the gates and let people create their own meaning from museum collections.


        1. Now you’re on to something. Does having a collection equate with actively collecting? We often tend to lump them together, but I’m not sure one necessarily follows the other. The arms race among art museums to continually get whatever the marketplace is offering is problematic enough that I’d advocate leaving acquisition out to be it’s own topic for consideration later. In our imaginary case, we’ve got a collection, and we can assume (at least for the short-term future) that we won’t be actively collecting.

          I am in full agreement with your (and Rainey’s) belief about the power of presence. I also think that thinking differently about collections policies is a worthy topic. The one size fits all approach (Nobody touch nothing! Never!) can lead to silly policy and practice, which makes it harder to educate visitors about what really is fragile and precious and why.

          Your last point about community is one that I’d like to see us set aside. Museums both provide context (exhibits) and provide deep content (collections data) and we should be doing both. I think they serve the same audiences in ways at different times. I don’t think I’d ever prioritize one over the other.


    2. Amanda, your reminder that internal transparency is a big part of this process is really important. The museum community has been talking about the notion of radical trust for a long time, but (at least when I’ve heard it) it has largely been predicated that we need to radically trust the community online. But in a situation of institutional transparency, then it also becomes important to trust radically the staff of the institution, and that is probably every bit as scary. What happens if that trust is misplaced, and something happens that tarnishes the reputation of the institution? It is the same question we ask ourselves about the public, but this time, the focus is on ourselves. Transparency, then, has implications not just for how the institution responds to external feedback, but also how it acts on feedback from within to aim for internal consistency and improvement too.

      Challenging stuff! Running a museum like this sounds like a lot of work 🙂

      Ed – nice Q re the collection vs community dichotomy. Why do you think the dichotomy has existed until now? Is it just about the balance of resources?


      1. Suse – I am thinking more and more lately on the idea of how exhausting and difficult it is to do things right, and how easy it is to do things shoddily/wrong. It applies all across life, I think!

        I completely agree that reaction to feedback is a key indicator. I’ve been at places (both museums and other jobs) where one piece of negative external feedback creates a firebomb, and yet persistent, troubling internal negative feedback is completely ignored. It makes for a toxic work environment, to say the very least.


      2. Once again you hit the nail on the head about transparency. It may have been formulated as a response to how we deal with external communities, but I think it’s power as a model is how it applies all the way across the spectrum from how we work to how we interact with our public. I honestly believe that the hardest part of running a radically transparent museum would be getting it off the ground. It may sound corny, but I think the work necessary to establish the norms and procedures would pay off in the form of a staff who are motivated and equipped to do their jobs with a degree of knowledge and trust unheard of in most institutions.


        1. I think this is probably true, although there will likely be an initial push to get the Transparent Museum off the ground (how to resolve what should/should not be disclosed, and to whom, and under what circumstances?), which would likely see great commitment and enthusiasm from staff who were recruited specifically with those aims. But then I think there would be a further hurdle down the line as people potentially become complacent within their jobs, and maybe lose sight of the initial motivations that accompany that first strong vision. But that’s ok – that’s still some ways down the track for our RTM (radically transparent museum).


Comments are closed.